I was doing some counseling in a side hall when my radio crackled in my ear, "We need you in the East Hall. A fist fight has broken out." It was Sunday morning "rush hour," that time between services with large crowds both exiting and entering the building. When I arrived I found that two of our greeters had started an argument that had escalated into a fist fight—not exactly something we'd covered in volunteer training. The culprit in the argument was (drum roll please): politics. The greeters were embarrassed. I was embarrassed. Conflict had made yet another visible dent in the church.
Ministry is conflict. I agree with Westley from the Princess Bride when he tells Buttercup, "Life is pain … Anyone who says differently is selling something." In a typical day, those serving in ministry find themselves struggling with the sins of others, personal temptation, budget woes, selfishness, and even others in ministry. These conflicts can be healthy and life-giving (I think the church could actually use a much larger dose of healthy conflict), but only when they stimulate dialog, encourage creativity, and create positive change. However, the greater percentage of conflict in the church is unhealthy conflict. This kind of conflict destroys our relationships, morale, and effectiveness.
Community is torn apart when people in a church choose sides. Instead of focusing on reaching the lost and building disciples, ministry staff and volunteers find their time and energy sapped by petty arguments and gossip-mongering. What non-believer would be drawn to a church where conflict is palpable? They can find conflict in every other sector of their lives—they come seeking a place of peace, but too often don't find it. If conflict continues unresolved, church members and staff flee and congregations crumble.
Healthy spiritual leadership
There is no way that we can prevent all conflict from happening in ministry, but there are a few key things that we can do to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Once, early in my ministry, I heard a colleague say in a staff meeting, "I'm not sure I should even be on a church staff anymore." I expected to see my shock mirrored in the other's faces. It wasn't. At my old job, saying something like that would be the same as committing vocational suicide. Instead I saw heartfelt concern. Not only that, but we closed the conversation with prayer for this staff member. In this same meeting several people openly disagreed with the senior minister. But wonder of wonders, no laser beams shot out from his eyes. Instead, healthy dialogue took place and then we all went to lunch.
I didn't know it at the time, but I had just seen an illustration of an important factor in preventing conflict. I had seen leaders model healthy spiritual leadership and engage in honest and vulnerable communication. I have also seen healthy spiritual leadership when members of our staff have taught from God's Word transparently using their own mistakes as illustrations. I have seen it when grown men and women stop in a crowded lobby to pray with families who are hurting, actively listening and demonstrating that prayer and relationships take priority over tasks. I have even seen it as godly leaders ask for the forgiveness of other staff members in staff meetings for having talked about them behind their back. These kinds of models of good communication and spiritual leadership mean more than any sermon, song, or article can ever mean.